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Rome: Rescue teams evacuated more than 400 people from a car ferry that caught fire off Greece’s Adriatic coast in a 36-hour operation on roiling seas, but 10 people were killed in the disaster.
Italian and Greek authorities continued an air search of the sea around the vessel while they sought to verify the number of passengers who had been on board, fearing that many people could be missing.
The fire broke out on Sunday on a vehicle deck of the Norman Atlantic ferry, whose manifest said should be carrying 478 passengers and crew and more than 200 vehicles. Rescue efforts were complicated by bad weather.
Helicopters worked through the night plucking passengers off the stricken vessel and bringing them to safety aboard the 10 or so mercantile ships nearby. Photo: AP
Battling a gale-force storm and monster waves, rescue crews used helicopters to pluck more than 420 people from the decks of the ferry. Ten people aboard the ferry were killed, the Italian coastguard said.
The dead included a Greek man who became trapped in a lifeboat chute, the Greek coast guard said. Some of the other bodies were found at sea.
“It was hell,” Dimitra Theodossiou, a Greek soprano opera singer, told Italy’s la Repubblica newspaper. She was evacuated by helicopter during the night. “It was very cold, terribly cold. Nearby ships sprayed water from their hydrants [to fight the fire] and we were completely wet,” she said.
A wounded passenger waits to leave a cargo container ship at Bari Harbour. Photo: Reuters
She was treated for a mild case of hypothermia at a hospital in Lecce, Italy, and later released.
The Italian captain, Argilio Giacomazzi, abandoned the ship once all others had been evacuated, Italian Transport Minister Maurizio Lupi said.
Fifty-six crew members were evacuated, while 234 of those rescued were Greek, 54 Turkish, 22 Albanians and 22 Italians, Mr Lupi said.
Where the ferry was stranded.
He would not confirm a report from Greece that there were 38 still missing.
“It’s absolutely premature” to say how many are missing, Mr Lupi said.
Some of those rescued were not on the original ship’s manifest, and Italian authorities are looking for a definitive list of passengers to cross-check it with the names of the survivors, he said, adding that it was possible that there were illegal migrants aboard.
A medical team and a flight operator had boarded the vessel to assist the passengers and crew during the rescue, the Italian navy said. Its San Giorgio amphibious transport ship coordinated the rescue operation.
The joint Greek-Italian mission turned from a sea-going rescue into a dramatic airborne recovery after rough seas blocked vessels from reaching the ferry. At one stage after the fire broke out Sunday, merchant ships lined up to form a barrier to protect the ferry from towering waves, Italian officials said.
Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called the operation to save passengers and crew “massive and unprecedented.” Italy’s premier, Matteo Renzi, said the rescuers prevented “a slaughter at sea.”
A merchant ship carrying a reported 49 of the ferry passengers, including four children, arrived in the southern Italian port of Bari early on Monday.
Bad weather hampered efforts overnight to attach cables to the ferry for towing. Pictures from Monday afternoon showed the ship still smouldering, and Mr Lupi said tow cables attached overnight broke.
Italian and Albanian magistrates ordered that the ship be seized in order to investigate the cause of the fire, which is still unknown, and magistrates in both countries are deciding together where the vessel should be towed, Italy’s Transport Ministry said in a statement.
The Italian-flagged ferry, chartered by Greek ferry operator Anek Lines, was sailing from Patras in western Greece to Ancona in Italy.
Reuters, Washington Post